March 31, 2023

When Jacob Bernard-Docker got the call-up to the Ottawa Senators, many wondered who he would replace in the lineup. While the easy answer was Nikita Zaitsev, it was veteran Nick Holden who watched from the press box. Though the loss to the Vancouver Canucks was tough, Bernard-Docker was a bright spot. Following the loss, Zaitsev was placed on waivers. He’s since cleared but hasn’t yet been sent down. Management apparently wants to make space permanently available for Bernard-Docker.

Bernard-Docker Benefits Chabot

Slotting into the top pairing may be a tall order for a relative rookie, but Bernard-Docker did so without issue. His play with the Belleville Senators has clearly prepared him for the responsibility. He was drafted as an offensive-minded defenseman, but his two-way game has become the highlight. Bernard-Docker was on the ice with Thomas Chabot for over 15 minutes, and without his typical defensive partner, Artem Zub – who is out with an upper-body injury – Chabot has had to reel in his neutral-zone play and slow down the rush opportunities. But with Bernard-Docker, he was back to the same style of play. It’s no secret that Chabot is struggling as of late, but he immediately looked more comfortable against the Canucks on Tuesday (Nov. 8).

Thomas Chabot Ottawa Senators
Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Bernard-Docker is a stabilizing force on a struggling blue line. While he isn’t the tenured top-four defenseman the team really needs, he’s a capable defender who can eat up minutes. Jake Sanderson has been stellar since his debut. Between him and Bernard-Docker, there is ample opportunity to get Chabot under 25 minutes per night. That alone should help elevate his play and allow head coach DJ Smith to get better overall matchups.

Bernard-Docker: Eye Test Matches the Stats

Bernard-Docker played a prominent role in his first game, with 17:27 of time on the ice. It wasn’t his first NHL game – he checked in last season for eight games, averaging roughly 14 minutes a game, mostly against weaker competition. Sure, it’s only one game, but his growth is evident. Belleville’s coach, Troy Mann, has done a tremendous job of working with the team’s prospect pool and getting the best out of them, and I think he’s nearly ready for a coaching spot in the big leagues, but that’s a story for another day.

Time on Ice Corsi For % xGF xGA xGF%
Bernard-Docker 17:27 61.76% 1.29 0.51 71.58%
Sens Defense AVG 19:02 61.12% 1.45 0.94 59.49%
Bernard-Dockers stats against the overall Senators defensive average versus the Vancouver Canucks. (Data from Natural Stat Trick)

Against the Canucks, the Senators controlled the game when Bernard-Docker was on the ice. Some of that can be attributed to his play with Chabot, but playing alongside Bernard-Docker, Chabot actually exceeded his season averages in key metrics. The expected goal for percentage (xGF%) was absurd for a pair who were very new to playing together. As a duo, they had a 79.29 xGF%, and Chabot played about 12 minutes without Bernard-Docker and was closer to his season average of 55.11%, which includes time on the power play.

Jacob Bernard-Docker Ottawa Senators
Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Again, it’s a one-game sample, but Bernard-Docker is clearly ready for a major role. When Zub is healthy, he’ll likely return as Chabot’s partner, but there’s still plenty of opportunity for Bernard-Docker to become a regular. His steady, consistent play is the perfect match for the Senators’ right side. Down the left, they’ve got Chabot, Sanderson, and a rejuvenated Erik Brännström. They are all mobile, puck-movers with an offensive focus, but Bernard-Docker’s shift to strong two-way responsible play would allow them to jump the zone and take risks. If the team doesn’t want shutdown defense, then letting those players fly will be critical to their success.

Impacting the Senators’ Roster

There’s a lot of buzz about the team potentially being bought by a Hollywood celebrity. But the bigger story is the waiving of Zaitsev. He’s cleared waivers without being claimed, which does leave the door open for him to continue with the Senators. But it would be unlikely that the team waives him and then continues to play him. While the Senators have made no direct comment on it, it would be hard to believe this move isn’t related to Bernard-Docker’s performance. Whether it was his play in the AHL or his NHL season debut, he’s making a definitive impact.

Related: 5 Takeaways From Senators GM Pierre Dorion’s Press Conference

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The key thing that Bernard-Docker brings to the team is flexibility. With him, the Senators now have multiple ways to configure their backend. Sliding him into the defensive pairs allows the team to make roster moves without blowing up their blue line. Both Holden and Travis Hamonic will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, and as pending UFAs, they’re potential trade bait at the deadline. Hamonic is the more likely target, as he’s younger than Holden and his contract is free of no-trade clauses.

While the forward group continues to work on finding its chemistry, the defence is a little more stable now than it was last week. The team still has holes, but Bernard-Docker is proving the value of a strong prospect pipeline, and he’s just another player to have been promoted from within. If he can play at even 80 percent of what he showcased against the Canucks, the Senators’ defense will be significantly improved. With the losing streak getting longer, the team as a whole needs to be better. But for now, they can at least have a bit more confidence on the blue line.

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